31 August 2010
By Dahr Jamail
The scene is post-apocalyptic.
Under a grey sky, two families play in the surf just
off the beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana. To get to the
beach, we walk past a red, plastic barrier fence that
until very recently was there to keep people away from
the oil-soaked area. Now, there are a few openings
that beach goers can use. The fence is left largely
intact, I presume, for when they will need to close
the beach again when the next invasion of BP’s oil
A father jokingly throws sand at
his little boy who laughs while dodging it. This,
against a background of oil rigs and platforms looming
in the Gulf. In the foreground, littering the beach,
are tar balls. We stroll through the area, eyeing even
more tar balls that bob lazily underwater, amidst sand
ripples in the shallows … they are in the same
location where the father sits, grabbing handfuls of
sand to toss near his son.
We stroll back to our hotel. Beside
us is a large beach house that has been rented to the
National Guard. Two military Humvees, one olive green,
the other tan, are parked near the road just yards
from our car. It is a grim feeling here, like living
in the bowels of some greed-driven, security-obsessed,
lumbering giant so disconnected from its heart that
reality has long since ceased to figure into its outer
The next morning, we head out in a
boat from Fourchon with Jonathan Henderson from the
Gulf Restoration Network, his friend Randy, who is a
cameraman, and Craig, our charter fishing captain and
guide. It is August 16, the day that several of
Louisiana’s fisheries have been reopened for shrimping.
Just after leaving the boat launch,
we pass a shrimper coming back in.
“How did you do out there?” Craig
asks him. “Nothing. Nothing at all,” the despondent
fisherman replies. “How much do you usually catch?”
Craig asks. “Hundreds of pounds, sometimes a thousand
pounds,” comes the reply.
Craig looks at me and says, “That’s
Minutes later another shrimper
passes us, returning to port. “How’d you do?” Craig
asks. “We caught 12 shrimp,” he replies, “That’s
A brief reminder of the toxicity of
the dispersants BP is using in the Gulf: “According to
the EPA’s latest analysis of dispersant toxicity
released in the document Comparative Toxicity of Eight
Oil Dispersant Products on Two Gulf of Mexico Aquatic
Test Species, Corexit 9500, at a concentration of 42
parts per million, killed 50% of mysid shrimp tested.”
Most of the remaining shrimp died shortly thereafter.
Craig worked as a deckhand on a
shrimp boat when he was 12 years old, and has been on
the water ever since. He knows these areas like the
back of his hand, and he is torn up by what he sees.
“We find fish feeding that cause fish-oil slicks atop
the water,” he explains as we make our way out of the
bayou towards the Gulf. “But now, thanks to BP, most
of the slicks we see are oil.”
A little further, we pass dozens of
large shrimp boats laden with boom and skimming gear.
They’ve been converted into response vessels for BP’s
fading Vessels of Opportunity (VOO) program that has
created a false economy for the now out of work
fishermen. “BP is buying out a way of life,” Craig
says when he sees me eyeing the boats, all of which
are tied to the dock. “Generations of shrimping …
After a short time we arrive in
Devil’s Bay, to find forests of white PVC pipe
sticking out of the water. The pipe is used to hold
absorbent boom in place. Much of the boom is washed
ashore, or gone completely. “That PVC doesn’t rot,”
Craig comments, “It’ll be there a long time.”
Boom contaminated with oil is abundant. Craig turns
the boat out towards the bay, which is empty. “Right
now, there should be 50 or 60 shrimp boats in here,
but now it’s like this … closed, and most folks are
afraid to fish. We need good testing of the seafood,
and it needs to be done right. We only have one shot
Out in Devil’s Bay we encounter a
boat pulling a closed-off harbor skimmer: equipment
used to skim up oil slicks. The boat is accompanied by
an unmarked Carolina Skiff, driven by a man wearing
desert camouflage pants and a tan shirt. Our captain
will not let us get close enough to the boat pulling
the skimmer to talk to its captain, nor will the
boat’s captain even look at us.
“These boats don’t even have their
Louisiana numbers,” Craig says, annoyed. “Somebody
brought these boats down here and threw them in the
water, and they are not even from this state. It’s
another part of the scam.”
I’ve written recently about how
private contractors are being brought in from out of
state to use these boats to spray dispersant on oil
located by fisherman working in the VOO program in the
four most heavily affected states.
We carry on to arrive at Casse-tete
Ise. We find large amounts of absorbent boom washed
ashore. Some of this had been there so long it is
largely covered in sand.
“I guarantee you they’ll come pick
that up,” Craig says angrily, mocking BP. Given that
there is boom washed ashore and oiled PVC pipes around
much of the island, it’s clear that BP is aware of the
island being hit by oil. It is also clear that nobody
has been back to check on it for a very long time.
We offload from the boat and step
ashore. Oil-soaked marsh abounds, and the island
smells like a gas station. Noxious fumes infiltrate my
nose, causing me to cough. Piles of oiled oysters rest
on the tide line.
Everywhere I step near the water, sheen bubbles up
out of the soil. Hermit crabs scuttle over dead, oiled
marsh grass. Inland, we find tide pools filled with
brown oil and sheen. The horrible smell makes me dizzy
and nauseous. Each of us walks around on our own,
trying to take in the devastating scene. Anger and a
deep sadness comingle inside me. Rage at BP melds into
a broader anger at all of us for having let it come to
I watch a bird looking for food
among the blackened stubs of marsh grass. I think of
how the oil brings death to everything it touches,
sooner or later.
We get back in Craig’s boat and
move on toward another island, but skirt the coast of
this one whilst en route. Around the south side we
find the entire coast oiled. Contaminated sorbent boom
litters the coast above tide line.
“So when are they gonna come pick
this up?” Craig asks angrily to no one. “In 10 years?
So did they just not care about this island?”
There is another forest of PVC pipe
sticking out of the water.
I look down at Craig’s GPS map on
the boat. We float in the bay, but the map shows us on
land. “This is a post-Katrina map,” Craig points out.
“That’s how fast we’re losing the marsh.”
Early upon our arrival in
Louisiana, I was made aware of how every 30 minutes,
the state loses a football-field-sized chunk of land
to the Gulf of Mexico. The first of two primary causes
is the hemming in of the Mississippi River, which
prevents it from dumping sediment to replenish the
land. The second is the oil and gas industry, which
has carved out channels and canals, causing between
30-60 percent of this erosion. One third of the island
on Craig’s map is now gone. There are other islands on
his map that no longer exist.
As we continue on, Craig says that
the water seems odd, and “not as crisp” as it usually
is. He says, “It seems like it has cellophane over
it.” Several times throughout the day Craig makes this
comment. To me, given that the water has a slight
chop, it is hard to see his point - but that will soon
We arrive at Timbalier Isle, a
barrier island of Timbalier Bay. After we offload,
Jonathan calls me over. He’d filled his rubber boots
with water while wading ashore. He pulls off one of
his boots and dumps the contents on the sand. The
water is full of silvery sheen as it splashes onto the
sand. We both shake our heads.
We begin walking and find tar balls
everywhere. In some places, there are literally huge
mats of fresh tar.
The farther inland we travel, the
worse things become. It’s as though the entire island
is a sponge filled with sheen and oil. There is a pile
of yellow boom, and another of red boom, in the middle
of the southern beach. BP knows of this island, too.
It has had workers here. And again, no one has been
here in a very long time.
We walk along the bank of an inland
lagoon. Fiddler crabs skitter away from us as we walk
across sheen-covered sand. The pool is covered in
brown, stringy oil and sheen - the rainbow colors
tracing lazily across the surface. My stomach feels
sick when I think of these crabs, and all the others
along the Gulf Coast, that are filtering in sheen, oil
and dispersants. We watch them move toward the waters
oily edge, and stop. Are they trying to enter the
water, as is their nature, and can’t because it is too
toxic? What will become of these crabs? What will
become of the marine life and wildlife that feed on
There are several inland pools that are literally
oil pits. We are appalled at what we find. In one of
the pools, brown liquid oil floats atop areas where
the sand underneath is literally black with crude oil.
The scene is apocalyptic. Sorbent
booms blackened and browned with oil lay chaotically
in the lagoon. It is one of the more disgusting, vile
scenes I’ve ever seen. All of us fall silent. All we
can do is take photos. The stench is overpowering. I
gag. My eyes water from the burning chemicals in the
air, but also from sadness. My throat is sore, my
voice instantaneously hoarse, and I feel dizzy. I look
over to see Erika taking photos, tears running down
All of us are devastated. “This is
some of the worst I’ve seen,” says Jonathan, who has
been out investigating the results of the BP oil
disaster every week since it started in April. He
continues to take samples. I hear him gagging and look
over as he coughs the stench from his lungs before
bending down again to take another sample.
Shortly thereafter he finishes
taking samples, and we are off, all of us hobbled and
shaken by what we’ve just seen, along with the
exposure to such a vast amount of chemicals.
During the ten-minute walk back to
the boat, we hardly speak. I look out at the Gulf, the
oil rigs and platforms in the distance, then down at
the sheen oozing out of the sand at the water’s edge
as I walk alongside another tide pool.
Craig picks us up in the boat, and
we begin the trip back to Fourchon. I climb up atop
the “crow’s nest,” a small seat overlooking Craig’s
boat. I write in my notepad about what we’ve just
seen, but mostly, I just look out at the Gulf. I’ve
long since surrendered trying to get my head around
the enormity and longevity of this disaster. The
government cover-ups and its complicity with BP. The
profiteering happening from this disaster, not
dissimilar to the rampant war profiteering I’ve seen
The cost of this? The Gulf of
Mexico, the ninth largest body of water on the planet,
befouled with oil and toxic dispersants.
About halfway back to port we come
upon a thick sheen layer that is covered in
emulsified, white foam … the same kind I’ve seen in
videos taken by VOO workers, in which dispersants have
been used atop oil.
We stop so Jonathan can take more
water samples. As we do so, the stench burns my eyes.
We carry on, only to pass more
slicks like this. The entire day we’ve been in sheen,
and we’ve traveled more than 40 nautical miles, much
of it in open Gulf waters. All the water we’ve boated
across and all the islands we’ve explored are entirely
covered in sheen or oil.
From back atop my platform, I’m
amazed at the myriad rigs and platforms we pass,
sometimes thick enough in number to resemble floating
Throughout the day, the question
“what have we done” drifts into my consciousness. What
have we done? How has it come to this?
Thousands of lives along the Gulf
Coast are being devastated by this disaster. This is
merely the beginning of yet another toxic epoch for
the Gulf of Mexico, all the humans that live along the
coast, and all the marine life and wildlife that make
their homes here.
What have we done? How has it come to this? Where
do we go from here?